Sexism

Sexism

Sexism is a type of prejudice or discrimination based on beliefs about a person’s sex or gender.

Several different types of sexism exist, and each of them can have harmful consequences.

The guide below offers a starting place to:

  • identify sexism happening to you or someone else
  • call someone out for sexist behavior when it feels safe to do so
  • cope with the effects of sexism to take care of yourself

Who does sexism affect most?

While sexism typically affects women and girls, transgender and nonbinary people can experience sexism, too.

A nonbinary person may experience sexism when someone makes assumptions about them based on sex assigned at birth, for example.

Sexism directed toward trans people can also involve transmisogyny. This overlap of misogyny and transphobia might include criticism and condemnation for failing to align with gender norms associated with either sex assigned at birth or their actual gender.

What are the main types of sexism?

The six main types of sexism include:

Hostile sexism

This more overt form of sexism is generally underpinned by one primary goal: maintaining male dominance.

People who exercise this kind of sexism may:

  • consider men superior to women
  • suspect women of trying to control men through seduction or manipulation
  • believe women, transgender, and nonbinary people who reject traditional gender roles are attacking traditional values and threatening the status and position of men

According to a 2019 study, this form of sexism can sometimes lead to sexual harassment and violence toward women.

Since hostile sexism, true to its name, is more openly antagonistic, it’s generally a little easier to recognize. Examples include:

  • Victim blaming, or saying a sexual assault happened because the person assaulted dressed a certain way or acted like a “tease.”
  • Belittling or criticizing girls and women who pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated fields like sports, science, or technology.
  • Harassing someone who doesn’t comply with gender norms.
  • Teasing or reprimanding a girl who plays with trucks or a boy who plays with dolls.
  • Calling women who become upset or angry “hysterical.”
  • Calling assertive women “bossy.”

Benevolent sexism

Despite what the name suggests, this form of sexism can do just as much damage.

Benevolent sexism usually stems from a desire to protect women due to a belief that women are inherently weaker, more sensitive, or more innocent than men. Whereas hostile sexism punishes women for violating traditional gender norms, benevolent sexism encourages those traditional roles.

Benevolent sexism can negatively impact how women view themselves, making them less likely to challenge patriarchal norms or sexist inequalities. A 2015 study found that women who anticipate experiencing benevolent sexism in a particular task are less likely to express their leadership ambitions.

This type of sexism tends to happen more subtly, and it’s more socially accepted. So, you might not always recognize it as easily as other types of sexism.

A few examples include:

  • Praising feminine-stereotyped attributes, like being motherly or nurturing, and women who fulfill traditional roles in the home.
  • Trying to fight a woman’s battles for her even though she didn’t ask for “help,” or otherwise implying a woman needs a man’s protection.
  • Insisting on chivalrous behavior, like walking a woman home at night.
  • Encouraging a woman to prioritize their children or relationships over pursuing professional or educational goals.
  • Saying things that reinforce “positive” stereotypes, like “women are just neater than men,” “women are more beautiful than men,” or “women just naturally know how to take care of babies.”

Ambivalent sexism

This type of sexism combines both hostile and benevolent forms. It fuses the seemingly contradictory beliefs that women are both fragile and pure as well as manipulative and conniving. In other words, this attitude toward women could be described as “can’t live with them, can’t live without them.”

Some examples of ambivalent sexism include the following:

  • Upholding unrealistic or oppressive beauty ideals and expectations for women.
  • Expressing judgment of a woman’s character based on how she dresses.
  • Hanging out with or hiring someone because of how they look and then lashing out when they don’t reciprocate sexual advances.
  • Vilifying behavior that’s not traditionally feminine, calling it “unladylike.”

Interpersonal sexism

This type of sexism occurs in everyday interactions with:

  • partners
  • friends
  • family member
  • co-workers
  • strangers

If someone directly judges you for not aligning with gender stereotypes or talks down to you based on assumptions about your sex or gender, that’s considered interpersonal sexism. Keep in mind, too, that people often use humor to disguise sexism in these interactions.

Examples of interpersonal sexism include:

  • Accusing you of not being or acting “ladylike”
  • Making a joke based on sexist beliefs
  • Justifying sexism by saying “boys will be boys”
  • Blatantly ignoring, minimizing, or invalidating your thoughts, ideas, and feelings because you’re a woman

Internalized sexism

When you’re repeatedly exposed to sexist behavior and language, you may begin to internalize, or adopt sexist beliefs about yourself.

One particularly detrimental result of internalized sexism? Once you begin to internalize these negative messages, you’re less likely to push back against your oppressors. You may even start to join in when someone else engages in sexism. But this isn’t your fault: Participating in sexism often stems from a desire to feel safe and “fit in” to a patriarchal society.

Some examples of internalized sexism include:

  • Feelings of incompetence based purely on your sex or gender.
  • Telling a joke that puts down people of your gender.
  • Saying something that fuels gender-based stereotypes.
  • Viewing and treating yourself as an object for others’ visual pleasure and only deriving self-worth from your physical appearance.
  • Suggesting to other women that it’s their “duty” to cook dinner, care for children, or perform other responsibilities associated with stereotypical gender roles.
  • Making an effort to conform to gender ideals that don’t feel authentic, even in self-destructive ways like restricting you’re eating.

Institutional sexism

This type of sexism occurs when institutions like the media, healthcare, law enforcement, education, religion, and banking reinforce sexist ideology.

Sexism is often embedded into laws, company policies, hiring practices, media representation, and other aspects of society. Institutional sexism can be hostile, benevolent, or ambivalent. It might range from disadvantaging certain groups financially to blatantly punishing people for expressing their gender.

Institutional sexism can also contribute to internalized sexism. In short, the more a particular group experiences the consequences of systemic prejudice and discrimination, the more easily they may come to subconsciously adopt the sexist beliefs driving it.

One major example of institutional sexism? The gender pay gap. According to a Pew Research study, women earned 84% of what men earned in 2020.

Other examples include:

Where does sexism come from?

Sexism can come from a wide range of sources.

A few of the most common issues underlying sexism include:

  • beliefs about traditional gender roles inherited from caregivers and educators
  • laws that promote different treatment of men and women
  • sexist imagery and language in pop culture and the media
  • normalization of sexual harassment and sexist jokes in movies, television shows, and other media, which can lead to desensitization
  • lack of policies for responding to or penalizing sexism in the workplace, schools, and other sectors

Keep in mind that people of any gender can engage in sexism or reinforce sexist beliefs.

What’s the impact?

Sexism can take a toll on your health, as well as your career, relationships, and overall quality of life.

  • Mental health. A 2018 study found that women who perceive gender discrimination in their workplace are significantly more likely to self-report worse mental health. In a 2020 study women who reported experiencing gender discrimination in the past 12 months scored higher on a depression screening than those who didn’t.
  • Physical health. According to a 2018 study, women who experience discrimination at work — especially sexual harassment — are more likely to report poor physical health. Additionally, a 2018 review found doctors are more likely to view women’s chronic pain as imagined, exaggerated, or made up in comparison with men’s pain, leaving them lacking treatment or support.
  • Job satisfaction. 2019 study revealed that sexism in the workplace, whether institutional or interpersonal, was linked to a poorer sense of belonging for women. This, in turn, seemed to reduce job satisfaction due to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  • Relationships. In a 2018 study, researchers found women with partners who promoted hostile sexism not only tended to report a greater number of problems in their relationships but also rated those problems as more severe. As a result, those women tended to feel less satisfied and committed to their relationship.

How to address it

If you experience sexism or witness it, whether at home, work, a party, or online, you can address it in a few different ways.

The way you respond may, of course, depend on the type of sexism and your relationship to the person engaging in sexist behavior.

Keep in mind that you’re not obligated to call out sexism every time you witness it, especially if you don’t feel safe doing so.

If someone makes a joke or remark that reinforces stereotypes or stems from sexist assumptions, you might calmly but firmly challenge those beliefs by asking, “What makes you say that? Can you explain that to me?”

By asking questions, you’re far less likely to put the other person on the defensive. This is also a great way to force the person to reflect on their own prejudice, which they may not even have realized they had.

However, if someone close to you — like a partner, parent, or friend — shows signs of sexism around you, it’s OK to be more direct in confronting them about why their behavior is problematic.

You might:

  • try an I-statement. “I feel [XYZ] when I hear sexist remarks. In the future, I’d rather you avoid saying [XYZ].
  • specify what you will and won’t tolerate. “That kind of language isn’t OK with me.”
  • offer clear consequences for not respecting those boundaries. “If you start making sexist jokes, I’ll head home for the night.”

When you experience or witness sexism in the workplace, you may not feel comfortable confronting the person engaging in this kind of behavior. In that case, consider sharing what you observed with someone in your human resources department, and let them take it from there.

When it comes to unconscious gender bias, which is fairly common, a good first step to overcoming sexist beliefs involves simply acknowledging that they exist.

So, if you start to notice sexist thoughts and behaviors in your own internal dialogue and actions, it’s worth taking a step back and reflecting on why you hold these beliefs. From there, you can begin some deeper exploration of the causes and effects of gender bias.

A therapist can also help you:

  • pinpoint what thought patterns prompt sexist behavior
  • explore underlying causes of these sexist beliefs
  • begin taking steps to overcome them

Getting support for sexism

Of course, it’s not always possible to avoid or prevent sexist behavior.

If you live in a situation where you’re constantly exposed to sexism from a roommate, family member, or partner, you may want to consider connecting with a therapist.

How can therapy help?

A therapist can:

  • coach you on helpful coping strategies to use in the moment
  • offer more guidance on productive ways to respond to sexism
  • help you find ways to communicate the effects of sexist messages and behaviors to your loved ones

It’s always worth reaching out for support when any unwanted behavior has an ongoing effect on your physical health or overall well-being.

Some therapists even specialize in gender discrimination. Feminist therapy, for example, specifically aims to explore the stressors and challenges that result from prejudice and discrimination.

In feminist therapy, you might:

  • build and practice assertiveness skills
  • learn to recognize how mental health symptoms relate to certain forms of sexism
  • work through your own internalized sexism
  • identify and untangle ingrained false beliefs
  • build up your self-esteem and replace problematic beliefs

Note: You don’t need to be a cisgender woman to pursue or benefit from feminist therapy.

Bottom line:

Sexism comes in many forms, from seemingly harmless everyday interactions to deep-seated institutional biases. Anyone can experience or engage in sexism, regardless of their sex, gender identity, or gender expression.

Sexism can negatively affect your physical and mental health and quality of life in any number of ways, but professional support can make a difference.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to a therapist if sexist messages and behaviors from people in your life have an ongoing impact on your well-being or keep you from achieving your goals and maintaining healthy relationships.

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Medically reviewed by Francis Kuehnle, MSN, RN-BC
Written by Rebecca Strong

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